Chasing Choppers: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Transfer Window

Almost certainly not Bobby Zamora leaving Craven Cottage in a helicopter.

I didn’t realize how much I’d miss the helicopters until they weren’t there anymore.

I’m not sure what the lack of helicopter reports means really. Is it a slow news day just because no one lied to me about players being spirited through the skies[1] on the way to their new future? Does movement by train or automobile not carry the same weight?

Kind of. Yesterday was the least thrilling transfer deadline day in recent memory, a fact we can only partially blame on the lack of helicopters. With plenty of teams determined not to sell their young stars until the summer, and plenty more scared off by the ongoing Carroll-Torres debacles, the deadline passed with more whimper than bang, in that that’s probably the noise QPR made as they opened their company checkbook when they realized Bobby Zamora really was going to stand them up if they didn’t comply with his demands.

Even so, it was ten times busier and at least twice as exciting as any American trade deadline, where the action usually becomes about how teams are finding a way to make a single big move work in the entire league. If you think baseball’s deadline day is crazy, where players have to be paired up or packaged into asymmetrical groups of something approaching similar value, then get a load of the crazed capitalism that is the transfer window, where money is all that matters. Compared to the player movement machinations we’re used to seeing in the American sporting press, it’s practically Thunderdome.[2]

The transfer window in a nutshell.

An MLB trade is almost always either inconsequential or an exchange of current, expensive value for future, inexpensive value, of good players for good prospects. An NFL trade is the same thing, except it’s current, expensive value for future draft picks.

An NBA trade is a little more interesting. They have to be assembled like a puzzle, taking into account salaries, contract clauses and roster construction. Those rules are so complicated that ESPN can put a tool on its website that we’ll all eventually call the Bill Simmons Memorial Trade Machine in order to keep track of them.[3]

Plus, there’s the outsized impact those trades have on rosters. All but the worst NBA teams are at most two or three pieces away from contending; it’s just a matter of identifying and obtaining that talent.

But what these things all have in common is that they’re basically closed systems. New talent is injected annually via the draft or, in the case of baseball, via the occasional offseason signing of a foreign (usually Japanese, as others are snapped up earlier) star. Otherwise; it’s easy: someone who follows the league at even a reasonable level will know at least the names of all the possible acquisitions for his team. The only surprise is how the GM manages to get Player X or Player Y or Expiring Contract Z.

How much does he want?

Soccer’s different. Strictly speaking, it’s closed too – the number of professional-caliber footballers on the planet is finite – but the number of leagues and divisions and players give it a complexity that’s several orders of magnitude above what we see in American sports: In terms of complex systems, it’s like comparing the stock market to the water cycle.

And it’s glorious, because despite all that additional complexity, all the extra leagues to scout and players to compare and decisions to make, the means through which they make those decisions aren’t any more advanced than they are for the average MLB or NBA GM. They still sign players who don’t fit into their systems. Larger scouting networks are better from a quantity standpoint, but they make no guarantee of the quality of signings.[4]

Long term, I’m convinced all this is a good thing for soccer in this country. The sporting world’s tastemakers, the ones capable of bringing soccer or any other game to the masses – ESPN, Fox, maybe NBC Sports eventually – don’t just have to get those masses interested in watching games, they have to get them watching coverage too. Those viewers have their value. After all, there are 24 hours in a day, and ESPN only has the broadcast rights for three to eight hours worth of sports, plus poker.

I don’t think this is going to convince anyone to start putting more soccer on the air tomorrow, but it’s something the network executives have to be thinking about when they’re laying out their efforts to grow the sport in this country. Selling soccer is more than having people watch the games on Saturday mornings and Sunday nights, it’s getting them during all the moments in between with a combination of breaking news and talking heads ruminating over them until there’s nothing left but cud. The transfer window is like a trough from which this coverage can feed.

The silly season – helicopters and all – is the perfect occasion for a world where sports news is so much more prevalent than actual sports.[5]


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2. “I know you won’t break the rules, because there aren’t any.”

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3. The best non-sports comparison for the Trade Machine that I can think of is Foldit, the protein-folding game developed by University of Washington researchers that some gamers just used to solve an AIDS problem that had stumped scientists for more than a decade.

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4. How much for Saha and Zamora?

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5. I’ll admit this idea makes me uncomfortable, even though through this site I’m arguably a part of it. I have a vague feeling that this is not the way this should be working, that the games themselves should be more central to our consumption of sports. I also know that by this point, railing against it would be like composing screeds against light pollution or how we should go back to enforcing the 55 mph national speed limit.

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